By M. Sophia Newman
It was a hot summer night, and the Dutch Club was packed. The year was 2013, and I was completing a Fulbright in Dhaka, Bangladesh, one of the least livable cities in the world. There was nothing like nightlife in the overcrowded city — first of all because its Islamic conservatism made dancing taboo and alcohol mostly illegal, and second because political conflicts had ignited hundreds of violent, far-right riots that year. This night was different: amid a rare pause in the mayhem, one of the social clubs attached to a foreign embassy had attracted a sizable crowd. Once we’d slaked ourselves with mediocre but mercifully free-flowing beer, an affable nonprofessional emcee led us through a popular Dutch weekend routine: a pub quiz.
"Name the missing lyrics!" he shouted into a mic halfway through the trivia game. Then he cut on a modified track with Prince’s falsetto:
You don't have to be rich
To be my girl.
You don't have to be cool
To rule my world….
“Ain't no particular sign I'm more compatible with!” I blurted to my German and American teammates when the lyrics cut out. “I just want your extra time, and your….” Prince’s mellifluous voice topped jangling guitar to finish the line. The song played on in my head when we collected our prizes: flash drives loaded with music, including “Kiss,” of course.
Alone in my flat the next day, I listened again and realized how bizarre and wondrous Prince appeared from the vantage point of South Asia. Finding a Youtube video of "Kiss,” I sent it to a Bangladeshi friend with a note that enthused, “A woman wearing something that looks like a burqa and panties (!!) dances around a man who looks like a Bengali (but isn't) while he sings lines like ‘You don't have to watch Dynasty to have an attitude!’ … It's all so delightfully insane.”
It was. And it was intensely helpful, too.
“Kiss” is a silly song that reflects its creator. The oddities of a guy who spent his whole adult life as an isolated celebrity were long enough to list: Prince enjoyed spaghetti with orange juice. He had see-through roller skates that shot multicolored sparks. He kept “a two-foot statue of a smiling yellow gnome covered by a swarm of butterflies” in a bedroom in Paisley Park, Rolling Stone reported in 1985.
In America, this stuff seems inane. From South Asia, where innocents often died when extremist mobs firebombed city buses, its sweet childishness came as a deep relief. In Bangladesh, absurdity involves accusing a newspaper editor of the same crimes 79 times just for doing his job, or stealing $100 million dollars and then abducting some poor guy investigating who did it, or organizing a huge riot demanding the government ban sculptures (and repress women and kill atheists). Prince, meanwhile, was just doing some goofy shit in his own home — where he also hosted friendly, low-cost community events. Thinking about his harmlessness made me feel so happy, I could have kissed him.
Actually, if I had, that might have been pretty enlivening, too.
Bangladesh is a hypersexual place — in a conservative, back-handed, melodramatic way. Women’s families must pay grooms to marry their daughters, as though they were trash to be hauled away. Cultural conservativism involves public dress codes so strict that men in the street once turned to stare at my ankles when I lifted a long skirt to step over a puddle. Men themselves seemed to feel a toxic mix of shame over ordinary desires and unbridled superiority over women. Daily life often involved aggressive repression interlaced with grim fear.
Prince represented the opposite, of course. “In a hypersexual era,” writes journalist Toure, author of I Would Die 4 U: How Prince Became an Icon, “Prince made Hugh Hefner look like a slowpoke and Dr. Ruth Westheimer like a freshman.” It’s true. Even forty years after his debut, Prince’s sexuality is still sometimes eyebrow-raising — and that’s from the vantage point of liberal America, not fundamentalist Bangladesh. “Darling Nikki” was the reason parental advisory stickers came into being. Some of his videos bordered on softcore porn.
But his approach intertwined raunchiness with romantic sweetness and feminist respect in a way virtually no porn — and certainly no repressive conservatism — ever does. In his first hit, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” he sings “I didn’t want to pressure you, baby,” well before he says, “I want to be the only one you come for.” In “Kiss,” he’s all about subtlety:
You got to not talk dirty, baby,
If you wanna impress me.
You can’t be too flirty, mama.
I know how to undress me, yeahhh.
The contrast — amoral intensity mixed with unexpected respect — was a big part of his genius. The anthropological tome Trickster Makes This World, by Lewis Hyde, explains the very characteristics Prince took to the utmost. Although the book makes no mention of the musician, it explicates the ancient “trickster” archetype creative people often occupy — particularly ones who aim towards subversive, deviant, or frankly sexual art.
“Trickster is a boundary crosser,” Hyde writes. “Every group has its edge, its sense of in and out, and trickster is always there, at the gates of the city and the gates of life… We constantly distinguish — right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead — and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction. Trickster is… out to reshape and revive the world he had been born into.”
Hyde’s examples are all historical (e.g., Frederick Douglass) or mythical (like the Hindu god Krishna). But when I contacted him and asked whether the musicians of our time are also tricksters, he was blunt: “That’s up to you.”
Well, great. Then Prince is an obvious choice. Who else revived and reshaped pop music like he did? Who else would write a lyric like “People call me rude / I wish we were all nude / I wish there was no black or white / I wish there were no rules”? Who else was forever “walking the line… between unknowable cipher and local fixture”? He was boundary-crossing defined.
Yesterday, some astute Twitter user commented on celebrity deaths, “We don’t cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.” True indeed. In Dhaka, when I started a career in writing by ignoring my Fulbright fellowship, I saw no dignified path except that of a truth-telling dissenter. Prince, forever favoring artistic transcendence over open defiance, seemed both on my side and a necessary relief to the violent city’s daily grind. I couldn’t have become who I am now without him.
Really, though, Prince’s gift to me was in how I saw everyone else. In the end, the controversy-courting artist friend who got my email about Prince expressed only distaste — but even he couldn’t deny that the singer resembled Bengalis. In that part of South Asia, the average man is about five foot four, and leche con café skin, jet black hair, and dark eyes are almost uniform. Lithe, little, light brown Prince could have relaxed his hair and blended in just about anywhere.
After that night at the club, I tended to walk around smiling, thinking of him everywhere I went.
M. Sophia Newman is a freelance writer. She completed a Fulbright in Bangladesh in 2012-2013. See more at msophianewman.com.